Giles Coren is passionate about his work, but he's gradually realising his bad temper may be a bit of an issue
• Giles Coren (photo: Graham Jepson)
Giles Coren has never hit a person, an animal or "anything with life in it" but he has broken his hand by smashing it into an inanimate object. Sure, the writer, restaurant critic and television presenter has an anger problem but is it that different from anyone else's?
Anyway, he hasn't actually broken his hand for a couple of years now. Is that the result of his therapy? Maybe it's just a sign of growing up, which, given he's now 40, would probably be quite a good thing.
There's a lucrative side to his anger, mind, because he writes columns for The Times about all the things that infuriate him – fat people, dog shit, wheelie luggage, Poles, vegetarianism, more dog shit, more fat people – and now has pulled it all together into a book called Anger Management.
The anger bit is pretty obvious but the management aspect is more mysterious. Unless it's that any unsuspecting angry nutter who picks it up assuming it's a self-help manual will eventually put it down thinking, blimey, I don't have a problem at all next to Psycho there.
His fury was at its most magnificent – and public – in 2008 when an e-mail he wrote to The Times' sub-editors was leaked and plastered across the front page of the rival Guardian.
Now, subs and writers have been engaged in warfare for as long as both have existed. Subs, who are responsible for ensuring accuracy, sometimes have to bomb their way through prose that verges on the illiterate. On the other hand, writers think they encroach into territory beyond their jurisdiction and, as a result, actually add inaccuracy to their – very literate, thank you – masterpieces. Which is pretty annoying if you've taken time with it, Coren argues. And the least the blasted subs could do is ask, which is surely only polite.
So what had the enemy done on this occasion to induce his ire? Coren had built the final paragraph of a restaurant review into a sexually charged little scene which ended with a couple looking for "a nosh". A phrase loaded with innuendo. The subs changed it to simply looking for "nosh". It killed the whole thing, fumed Coren. It was a sign of their ignorant incompetence with language.
It would wear out my asterisk key to reproduce his lengthy e-mail in full, but let's just say it was brimming with F words and C words and here's a little flavour of the more repeatable bit. "When you're winding up a piece of prose, metre is crucial. Can't you hear? Can't you hear that it is wrong? It's not f***ing rocket science. It's f***ing pre-GCSE scansion. I have written 350 restaurant reviews for The Times and I have never ended on an unstressed syllable. F***, f***, f***, f***." Note the interesting use of repetition here for emphasis, the alliterative effect reproducing so powerfully the rapid fire of the machine-gun he wishes to employ. This was someone thinking they knew better than him. "Well you f***ing don't. This was shit, shit, shit sub-editing…" Deep breath, Giles.
Lots of very respected writers responded with glee to Coren's outburst – people like Stephen Fry and Martin Amis. (What about my novel, demands Coren. Why did they congratulate my e-mail and not my f***ing novel?) He doesn't regret sending the message (he's getting this book on the back of it), but tempted as he's been since to send another, he hasn't. He's still volatile, though. Highly strung. He talks so fast, he's like an overwound rabbit on the Duracell advert, a rabbit on speed, haring up verbal alleyways, only to come bounding back down them.
He tells me about this novel he nearly wrote, which sounds very interesting because it combined Henry VIII and psychoanalysis. But can you imagine empathising with Henry's methods of wife disposal? Coren only got married two weeks ago and is just back from honeymoon, all loved up, but if I was the new Mrs Coren I'd be out in hives round my neck. You know, he says, perfectly seriously, given that Anne Boleyn could be described as treasonous and "capital punishment was an option", well, "wouldn't we all do the same, possibly, then regret it the next day?" You know, I'm not sure about that, Giles. "Dear Diary, yesterday I had my wife beheaded. Today I think maybe I shouldn't have done it..."
No, not a temperate man. Can be laugh-out-loud funny in print, though. We meet at his publisher's offices and, at first, I almost suspect it's staged when staff literally queue to get a signed copy of his book. Coren is lording it up, clearly adoring the audience. One guy asks him to sign a message for his wife. She's a huge fan. "She really wants to do it with me, not you, doesn't she?" Coren says. All very funny. But don't think for a minute he doesn't mean it.
Bonhomie and anger sit side by side. In 2006, Coren said… and here he shifts rather uncomfortably as he hears his words quoted back at him, probably because they're meant to be disposable, not remembered… "Life's a laugh and journalism is fun, not rocket science." By 2008, he was sending crazed death threats to The Times' subs. What on earth happened in those two years? There is a bit of a pause. "My father died," he says which, frankly, is not what I expected him to say at all.
Giles Coren is the son of the late, great British humorist Alan. (And brother of humorist, writer and professional poker player Victoria, who once won a million dollars at the poker table. And also son of the curiously anonymous Mrs Alan Coren who was fine and made good dinners and things, according to Giles, but also happened to be a doctor. That looked a bit too much like hard work to her son.) A family of alpha males? Yes, says Giles, and the biggest one was Victoria.
Coren always said at university (Oxford actually) that whatever he did, it wouldn't be what his father did, but here he is, doing exactly the same thing at exactly the same paper. "My dad would have been really upset and angry with me for writing that e-mail. He never wrote an angry word in his life, though he was quite an angry fellow. Everyone said, "Oh what a lovely man, so jolly and whimsical."'
Coren really has tried an anger management course – it was rubbish – but also therapy, which wasn't. (He still goes because his wife thinks he should.) All that talking, he says, makes the subconscious, conscious. Today, his father comes up repeatedly, so there's probably something significant about that. (Interestingly, he quite often mentions his father and anger in the same sentence.) But he talks with a mixture of love, and pride, and a soupon of jealousy, and a need to be different, and a need to be the same. Standard father/son territory, no doubt, except his dad was famous, which makes everything more daunting.
His father was very supportive. The phone used to ring every Saturday and it would be his dad saying he loved this bit of the column or that bit. You can tell Coren misses that call. "Basically my dad was a big fan of mine, a huge admirer of my writing – and my sister's – but as he got older he lost his mojo a bit in terms of writing columns. He was still pretty good but he didn't like doing it any more and it became a drudge."
Sometimes, people would say Coren sounded just like his dad. "Often I would sit down and think, "Oh that's too like my dad." But if I went the other way, I would think, "That's not enough like my dad".'
Then his dad died and the son started writing angry stuff, partly because he felt quite angry, and partly because his dad was no longer around to disapprove. Maybe it felt like forging his own path, in the way Victoria forged hers with poker.
"My dad never really wrote what he thought. None of his inner rage and darkness and problems, which we all have, made it on to the page. For him, writing was a process of making everything appear funny. He would take incidents of domestic strife, like putting up the Christmas tree, and write about how funny it was when the lights didn't work. But if you'd been in the room, he didn't think it was funny at all. He was f***ing furious.
And after he died, and he wasn't watching any more, I thought well, Daddy's not going to be pissed off with me and I would write things that were a bit aggressive, a bit personal, a bit mean."
The trouble comes when you meet the people you insult. He met Sophie Dahl and couldn't understand why she kept drawing him daggers. Then she hissed: "Don't ever say anything mean about my poetry again" – and he had to go and consult Google to find out what he'd said. Awful, he says. But he's just criticised Dahl again for her cookery programme! "I know. I don't know what got into me," he protests. "I'll regret it." For all of about 30 seconds, probably.
Ranting is easier than other kinds of writing, he admits. But people think he's incredibly arrogant and there's a story at The Times about a young Giles arriving for work experience and eventually striding off to have words with the editor because he wasn't here just to do research and the like. He's just always been like that, he insists. "I arrived and I was the snooty little f*** with the English degree that was better than theirs. I know my f***ing grammar! I have never made a f***ing spelling mistake in my life! I know the rules well enough to bend them if I want to."
There is no doubt he's an excellent writer. But sometimes his outrageous ego and sense of entitlement just rise up from the page like a great tidal wave and near drown you. Coren says he's left-wing and I almost choke. What? Well, when he started, he got fed up with all the amusing ranters in the journalistic world – Richard Littlejohn and Jeremy Clarkson and the like – all being right-wingers. He wanted to show that, to be funny, you didn't need to be Boris Johnson. "My style is ranty but there isn't a right-wing opinion in there." Don't be ridiculous, Giles! "Go on then," he says, with only the tiniest hint of danger in his voice. Right, let's fasten our seatbelts then. (Not Coren, obviously, because he's never worn a seatbelt and has the penalty points to prove it.)
Education. He writes about Buckingham University being a "Mickey Mouse" university. He writes about Oxford being criticised for "their refusal to fill their colleges with knuckle-dragging working-class thickos" and says public school-educated boys like him didn't really need to go anyway because they know it all by the time they get there.
Gaining a top Oxbridge degree is "easy as falling off a log". Frankly, only the rich and privileged can afford to be that dismissive of education, or fail to appreciate its fundamentally life-changing qualities. If you're poor, education is your passport. If you're rich, it's just a luggage accessory.
"I couldn't get a job for three years," protests Coren. "Nobody gave a shit that I had a first from Oxford." So what did he do? He went off to France to work in a shop. It would make you laugh, really. What jolly bon chance that his education taught him enough French to buy his croissant for his petit djeuner, and that going there was economically viable in the first place. The poor go on the dole and the rich go to France. Plus a change, mes amis.
Coren takes this criticism in good part for an angry man and, anyway, I'm not really having a go at him for public school and Oxford, just for his failure to acknowledge what that has done for him. He says he wishes he hadn't had all that because then people would say he was a good writer just because he's a good writer, not because his parents paid for a slightly better teacher. He doesn't seem to notice that's missing the point a bit. It's like an athlete saying there is absolutely no connection between his fantastic physique and his success and actually he'd be brilliant even if nature had made him a 2ft dwarf. He'd still be high-jump champion, so there.
He seems genuinely oblivious to his own sense of entitlement, which is the way it works. It's not tangible. Not a visible stripe. It's a vapour. Here's how to define it. Giles Coren once insulted GQ magazine, so the editor, Dylan Jones, phoned him up and took him out to lunch. Then he commissioned him. (I know, baffling. It's just how it works in Poshland.) Now, I have also had a little go at Dylan Jones in print. I interviewed him when he wrote this ghastly book about gentlemen's etiquette that made any normal woman who read it want to gouge his eyes out with a rusty nail. (Don't iron chaps – keep a woman. Ha, ha. Or haw, haw as they say at Oxford.)
Jones – who was perfectly nice when he wasn't masquerading as a posh plonker – invited me to lunch afterwards too. (Advice to down-on-their-luck hacks: insult GQ's editor and you'll get free nosh. Not "a" nosh I hasten to add – just nosh.)
I didn't go. Why not? Because somewhere inside, I couldn't believe he meant it. And it would undoubtedly have been paid for by GQ's cavernous expenses' purse but would it be polite to at least offer to pay half? Or not? And what would I say if he said reproachfully: "Catherine, why were you mean to me?" No, it would have ended in tears and they wouldn't have been Jones's.
Anyway, by the time I was back in London, I'd have phoned him up and said my name and he'd have said: "Who?" And then I'd have stuttered something about were there any cleaning jobs going at GQ's offices? Lunch with Coren and Jones, on the other hand, was probably a comfortable affair (with Coren knowing exactly his worth), ending with a few mutual backslaps and the promise of a lovely fat cheque for the commission. That, chaps, is a sense of entitlement.
Inbuilt, intangible and leading to liberally sprayed opinions. Like Coren saying Poles could just f*** off home if they don't like it here because the Poles drove out his Jewish ancestors. Plus, their refusal to accept their guilt in the Jewish Holocaust was "a grotesque blot on their national character". That one went to the Press Complaints Commission. He won, though it's a bit ironic condemning the persecution of an entire nation, whose humanity was denied by vicious stereotyping, by writing about another nation in exactly the same way.
To be fair, Coren says he regrets the whole Polish thing a bit now because there are probably lots of perfectly nice Poles and he was just a bit angry because he'd attended his Jewish great-uncle's funeral that week. Besides, he's frightened the owner of the Polish caf he goes to will find out.
His father was brought up an orthodox Jew but Coren wasn't and took no notice until he was 30 and realised his family history was a useful way of being different. "I don't know what I'm doing writing about something like that," he laughs. "I'm a f***ing restaurant critic! The way I write possibly shouldn't be turned on serious things. Maybe to write about something like Polish complicity in the Holocaust, one should take a deep breath, take a few notes, think about it." Goodness. Giles does humility. Who'd a thunk it?
Now just in case you think I'm implying Coren is without substance, let me tell you about his Birds Eye adverts. Being a food critic, and a presenter of the BBC's Supersizers food programmes with Sue Perkins, Coren was asked to do adverts for Captain Birds Eye, but since he'd always gone on about sustainable fishing and cod stocks, he didn't feel he could. So he turned down all 250,000 smackeroos.
Luckily, Birds Eye changed its cod policy and the offer came round again and this time Coren was able to accept. But still… he put his money where his mouth was. Did he sell out food-wise, though? No, he says. He wouldn't want to pay for frozen food in a restaurant but he's never claimed there's anything wrong with it. "It didn't matter what anybody else said because I was morally satisfied and 250,000 for ten days' work doesn't come round twice in your life." (Although obviously in his case it did.) "That's your mortgage – pow!"
He has a finger in many media pies but has also written a novel, Winkler, about a hoax Jewish Holocaust survivor. It wasn't universally well received. In fact, it got him the "bad sex in fiction" prize.
Coren used to be really rude to editors since he thought if he got fired it would be the best thing for him because, really, he should be back at home writing novels anyway. But therapy has cured him of that highfalutin' stuff.
It's no longer his aim to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Now he realises it's OK just to be a successful column writer, presenter, husband and father. (He may be newly married but he reckons he can knock his first child out by the time he's 41.)
Being funny is good, though I'd guess he'd quite like to be loved as well. (Those gleaming eyes, that air of command, at the impromptu signing.) "Tell me, Giles," I say, as we bid our goodbyes, "are you as confident as you appear?" "Yes," he says. "Bloody right." But honestly, he had to think for at least two seconds before he answered.
Anger Management is published in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton on Thursday, priced 16.99
• This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 23 May.